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Nessmuk's Adirondack Letters

By George Washington Sears ("Nessmuk") (1821-1890), 1880-3

Rough Notes from the Woods, 3

Forest and Stream, Sept. 2, 1880

WHEN Chief William led up to the lick he took me by purling streams and pleasant places. Our way led through a beaver meadow--and that same beaver meadow business is an institution, so to speak, found nowhere so frequently or in such perfection as in the Northern Wilderness. On all the waters of the Moose, wherever you find a small stream emptying into river or lake, you may with something like certainty find a beaver meadow on the course of the brook, usually about midway of the stream.

The beaver is the first wild animal of importance to disappear before the white man; but there are men now living who remember when these beaver meadows were beaver ponds, with busy, sagacious, shy inhabitants. At present they are perfectly level meadows, invariably dotted with graceful light green tamaracks, with an occasional spruce, standing singly or in groups of three or four, resting in calm quiet in the bright sunlight, scarcely moved by the furious gales that sweep the mountain tops bare of timber.

From the very apex of Bald Mountain (the Mt. St. Louis of Colvin) you look down into one of these oases, a thousand feet below. You could almost throw a stone there. Quiet and motionless it lies, while the signal staff on the summit is bending before the gale, and you are fain to keep a few paces from the edge of the precipice lest a sudden gust knock you off your balance and send you into the tree tops five hundred feet below. Far more lovely and interesting to me are these beautiful, lonely nooks than the mountains that overlook them; to me they seem to have been strangely overlooked by tourists and writers who frequent this region. This is digression.

Silently as ghosts we stole through the meadows and up to an unusually thick clump of spruce and tamarack. Through the thick foliage I looked aloft and dimly saw three rude poles lashed to the branches twenty-five feet from the ground. Silently I commenced to climb, and soon found a seat on one pole, feet trying to rest on another. The Chief sighted a hole through the branches, made his old coat into a ball, and pitched it at my head with a force and accuracy that nearly knocked me off the perch. There was a scrambling among the branches, and the butt of William's preposterous musket appeared in reach. I drew it up, placed it against the left hand spruce with his old coat, and then came the butt of my rifle, followed by the head of the Chief.

We sat silently and watched warily. I saw by his eye that he expected the deer on his side of the "blind" and repented me that I had not placed his coat and blunderbuss against the other spruce. We had not long to wait. The sun was still shining with yellow, slanting rays on the light green of the tamaracks, when, glancing behind and beyond the Chief, I saw the old, old sight--a timid doe in the red coat, gliding cautiously into the tall grass of the meadow, ears forward and nose on the alert for any suspicious taint of enemies. We had been cautious and silent. She detected nothing wrong and turned toward the blind; halted at forty yards between two clumps of tamaracks and stood still to listen and sniff the air.

Now it strikes me that if I were a noble red man and had taken a fancy to a pale face; if I had taken that pale face to my lick for a shot and knew his rifle to be a nail-driver, I would have leaned backward a little and let the white man send a ball into the deer's vitals instead of chancing a musket with eleven small buckshot at a range of forty yards. The Chief did not see it in that light. With a slow, steady motion he cocked and raised the old piece, held it for an instant as in a vice, and then there was a dull, fluffy roar, a great expansion of powder smoke, and the deer was gone. I cared little. She no doubt had one or two fawns waiting for her on the hill; and being burdened with the cares of maternity would be but tough eating at the best. Even had the deer been a buck and in condition I would not have given him twenty-five cents for his shot. He laid the musket with his coat, climbed down in silence, and I saw him for a quarter of an hour hunting diligently for some sign of a hit; but he found not a trace, and he came back looking a little beaten, I thought. Then he spoke for the first time since entering the meadow.

"Watch any more?" he asked.

"No, decidedly no. The smoke settled down on the meadow and the grass is trampled at the very spot where the deer came in."

I pitched his coat and musket into the soft moss, followed them with my rifle, and we started for camp.

"Poor camp; only bark," said William.

I thought differently. It had a good roof of bark, with back, end and sides closed in with the same. We in Pennsylvania would reckon it an excellent camp. And what a grand woodsman the Chief was. He would hardly allow me to lift a stick of firewood, but toted old dry trunks of dead trees, bark and branches, picked browse for a fresh bed, and by the time it was fairly dark we were finally organized for sleep. I kept him awake for an hour beyond his usual time, making him give me points concerning the wilderness, of which he is reputed to have as much and as accurate knowledge as any man living. At length he tired of stories and talk, drew his blanket about his head, Indian fashion, and subsided in sleep.

"Wake me up early; look after deer," he said, the last thing before settling into a steady, subdued snore that was not at all aggravating.

I sat up late-smoked, mused, built fires and listened to my old acquaintances, the owls, until, overcome with drowsiness, I too pulled my blanket about my ears and slumbered sweetly, after the manner of those who rest at night in open camps.

It was daylight when I awoke. I roused first the fire and then Chief William. He shook himself together, borrowed my rifle and was off on the trail.

"'Fi don't fin' deer, be back in hour," he said, laconically.

"A fool's errand," said I, and went down to the spring hole to try fly-fishing. I pooled a couple of half-pounders, came back to camp and cooked a trout breakfast in my best manner. William had been gone more than his hour, breakfast was ready and hot, and I was getting impatient when far from beyond the beaver meadow on the mountain came the plain, sharp crack of my rifle. He had found the deer after all. And I ate breakfast alone.

It was past 9 a.m. when, getting impatient, I started up the trail and at the first turn met the Chief, a smile of Christian satisfaction on his face and the limp half of a freshly-killed deer wagging at his hip. It was a bit of good hunter craft. He explained how he had quartered the ground like a setter for a hundred rods before finding blood. Once found, he had followed it like a sleuth-hound, losing it again on the ridge, and finding the deer at last by patiently quartering the ground again. It was badly wounded in one kidney (all luck), but made a short run and lay down again. He crept up within thirty yards and shot it through the head. Few white hunters would ever have tracked out and killed it.

William cooked himself a hearty meal of venison, of which, being well fed, I could not partake; and then, still insisting on carrying my traps, started to put me, by a short cut on the trail, to my next objective point, Jones' Camp.

Albert Jones came into the wilderness about three years ago, so sick and weak as to be lifted from the wagon and unable to speak aloud on his arrival at the Forge House, foot of the Fulton Chain. He had been a strong man with an iron constitution, and, like many Americans, had broken himself down by constant overwork and anxiety. He had been a business man; a miner in the early California days; a ranchman; had owned and run sawmill; had been a tamer of wild horses among the Spaniards and "buckies" of Mexico, and had spent the best part of an active, vigorous life in the multifarious pursuits, chances and changes perculiar to an adventurous American.

It came to an end by a general physical breakdown. The doctors said "general debility." They always say that when they are stumped. Jones was a native of Northern New York and in his younger days had often gone to the wilderness for sport and recreation.

When hand and brain could work no longer he said, "Take me to the woods; if I am to die, let me die there." They took him in to die. In less than two months he had so far improved as to go out and attend to business, which had rather piled up on him in his absence. One month of that settled him. He was down again, and again he "broke his holt" and came to the woods. Again he got the benefit of an open-air, carefree life, and when he thought himself pretty well able to manage his affairs he went out of the woods and got down to business. And it floored him in just three weeks. Then he let go and came to the Wilderness for good, as he says.

He built a comfortable log camp (or house) at the foot of the Moose River stillwater, built and bought half a dozen boats, keeps boarders (when they come) at most reasonable rates, and passes his time as quietly as any man I know of. He has regained health and spirits and would, on the whole, make an excellent subject for "Adirondack" Murray if that gentleman were writing another book.

His place is situated at the foot of navigation for the Fulton Chain, and it is a twelve mile paddle from it to the Forge House landing, foot of First Lake. I will only add that of all the camps I have eaten and slept at, none has so good a supply of goodsized brook trout as Jones' camp. And thither I hired Jones to back my eighteen pound canoe and knapsack for a trip to the other side, or as much of it as I might find interesting and profitable.

I might mention that I made the acquaintance of a young man at Jones' who is a permanent boarder there, having sought the forest for relief from asthma, from which he had been a great sufferer. The relief was found, and he is another witness to the great benefit so often derived from a residence in the Wilderness.

Not all invalids improve by coming here. I had a pleasant camp of bark, with open front, pointed out to me on Fourth Lake, where a young man affilicted with incipient consumption tried all last summer the effects of open air life in the Wilderness. His camp was pleasant and in a healthful location. There was nothing lacking for a fair trial, and he tried it long and fairly, but in vain. He sleeps with his fathers. Scores come here for health who will tell you frankly that they might as well have stayed at home. Very many receive decided and permanent benefit. Some bad cases of asthma and consumption in its first stages are apparently cured. One thing is certain: you pay your money, you do not always take your choice. From Jones' I proposed to start on a canoe trip through or into any part of the woods that might strike me as interesting or desirable. In pursuance of which plan I paddled off from Jones' landing one exceedingly fine morning, reaching the Forge House in time for dinner and realizing pretty fully the difference between up stream or down when the paddle is in question, especially as I got fogged on the course and paddled sixteen miles instead of twelve.

The Forge House, kept by J. W. Barrett, is the starting point for most parties who go to the Fulton lakes. The house is well kept, and it is a great rendezvous for guides, whose boats may nearly always be seen at the landing, where the owners come to pick up their parties.

En passant, as this is the season both for lakers and brook trout and as many are deterred from visiting the woods at the best season for fishing by those intolerable nuisances, flies and mosquitoes, I may as well fulfill a promise made in my last, of an infallible recipe for these pests, by using which one may walk the trails and climb mountains, fish by day and sleep by night, free from the poisonous stings of black fly or mosquito. I know there are a score of remedies all more or less effective, and I have tried most of them during the last twenty-five years. The one I have found most effective is made as follows:--Three ounces castor oil and two ounces best tar. Bring to a slow boil on the stove in any vessel, letting it simmer for half an hour. When partially cool, add one ounce of pennyroyal, and mix thoroughly. To use, pour a teaspoonful into the palm of your hand, rub your hands together, and then rub every exposed inch of skin with your palms. A light coating will do; and don't wash it off. You may have to repeat it once or twice daily for the first two days, but after that one application each day will leave you in peace. It is in no way filthy, and it is not disagreeable to most persons, while the effect is all that can be desired.

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